Brief reviews of the Hornblower books

Kent Rasmussen has sent us seven brief reviews of the Hornblower books he wrote for LIBRARY JOURNAL. He comments: –

I should explain that reviews in that publication aim at helping librarians make acquisition decisions. Consequently, they’re brief and tend to emphasize points that will help librarians decide whether they should buy the books. Each review ends with an explicit recommendation.

I wrote all these reviews more than 16 years also–back when audio cassettes were the the only medium available. Since then, I’ve replaced all my Hornblower recordings twice–first with CDs, then with digital downloads. (By the way, I now have a complete set of the books on CD I’d like to sell.)

In rereading these reviews for the first time in many years, I see that I made a lot of pointed comments about individual readers (or “narrators,” as they’re formally known). It appears that I regarded Christian Rodska as the best reader. However, in checking my database records, I find that I gave Geoffrey Howard slightly higher marks. Also, I find that I’ve listened to Hornblower books read by eight different people. Howard is the only one to whom I’ve given my top marks, and in his case, I gave him top marks in only two books. Most of the others I rated “good,” with the exception of David Case and Richard Green, whom I generally rated as merely average. I think Howard is an American and all the others are British. Case, incidentally, also recorded books under the name “Frederick Davidson.” (I think Case was his real name, (He died in 2005.)

Kent

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MR. MIDSHIPMAN HORNBLOWER

Read by Geoffrey Howard. 6 cassettes. 8 hours. Books On Tape. 2001.

More a collection of stories than a novel, MR. MIDSHIPMAN HORNBLOWER follows its fictional British hero through his first years in the Royal Navy. Forester wrote it after establishing Hornblower as a senior commander in five novels dealing with his later years. This book repeatedly poses difficult challenges that help the young Hornblower develop the command skills that he will use in those later stories. It’s an engaging book and one that will be of interest even to many people who have never read a Hornblower book before, as it covers the same episodes as the recently popular A&E miniseries on Hornblower. Books On Tape is now reissuing all its Hornblower titles. This book’s narrator, Geoffrey Howard, lacks the vocal versatility of David Case, who recorded several of BOT’s original Hornblower titles; however, his reading is a distinct improvement over that of Bill Kelsey, who recorded MIDSHIPMEN for BOT in 1984. Recommended to all libraries with patrons who like good historical fiction.
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HORNBLOWER AND THE CRISIS

Read by Christian Rodska. 4 cassettes. 4 1/4 hours. Chivers Audiobooks. 2000.

When C. S. Forester died in 1966 he was working on his eleventh Hornblower novel. Published posthumously as HORNBLOWER AND THE CRISIS, the unfinished story begins where HORNBLOWER AND THE HOTSPUR ends. It is set on the eve of the Battle of Trafalgar in which the British demolished the combined Spanish and French fleets in 1805. How that decisive battle came about is the subject of CRISIS, in which Hornblower accepts a dangerous espionage mission that helps draw the French into battle. Although the unfinished manuscript ends before Hornblower actually begins his mission, it provides some fine naval action. This book also contains two previously uncollected stories–one set in Hornblower’s midshipman days, the other in 1848, when Hornblower is admiral of the navy. It’s an indispensable part of any Hornblower collection, and most listeners will find Christian Rodska’s reading preferable to that of Books On Tape’s Gary Martin. (Note: This book’s American title is HORNBLOWER DURING THE CRISIS.)

hornblower and the crsis 4 CD
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BEAT TO QUARTERS

Read by Geoffrey Howard. 6 cassettes. 6 hours. Books On Tape. 2002.

Originally published as THE HAPPY RETURN in England, this novel launched Forester’s Hornblower series in the latter’s midcareer. It opens in 1808 with then-captain Hornblower commanding a British frigate in the Pacific Ocean, where he is to help Central American rebels against Spain. After capturing a larger Spanish warship, he turns it and a large supply of weapons over to the rebels, even though they are led by a madman. Afterward he learns that Spain has allied with Britain, so he must fight the Spanish ship a second time. First, however, he reluctantly takes aboard an aristocratic Englishwoman who is fleeing fever in Panama. The result is an exciting mixture of adventure and romance that sets the stage for ten future Hornblower stories. Geoffrey Howard’s narration in this new Books On Tape recording is a signal improvement over the company’s earlier edition but is not demonstrably better than Christian Rodska’s narration of THE HAPPY RETURN for Chivers. Either version would make a fine addition to any general audiobook collection.
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FLYING COLOURS

Read by Christian Rodska. 6 cass. 7 1/4 hrs. Chivers.

Forester’s saga about the fictional British naval hero of the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio Hornblower has long been popular and is likely soon to become even more so–thanks to a lavish British miniseries headed this way. With intelligent, carefully crafted plots and riveting action, all eleven Hornblower novels make ideal audiobooks, and FLYING COLOURS (1938) is no exception–especially with Christian Rodska’s able reading. Its story immediately follows SHIP OF THE LINE, which ends with Hornblower disabling four enemy ships and surrendering his own wrecked ship to the French in a Spanish port. While Hornblower and his crippled first lieutenant are taken overland to Paris for trial and almost certain execution, they stage a daring escape. However, Hornblower is torn by the knowledge that even if he returns to England, he faces court-martial and may be executed anyway for surrendering his ship. Though set mostly on land, FLYING COLOURS never lacks for excitement, and its conclusion may be the most gratifying of any in the Hornblower saga.

CS Forester Flying Colours Christian Rodska
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THE COMMODORE

Read by Christian Rodska. 8 cassettes. 9 1/2 hours. Chivers Audiobooks. 1999.

First published in 1945, this book is sequentially ninth in the eleven-volume Hornblower saga. It immediately follows the “Captain” trilogy, in which Hornblower escapes from French arrest and returns home to be knighted and made financially secure. The British naval hero is now the commodore of a flotilla sent into the Baltic Sea to harass enemy shipping and encourage Russia to declare war on France. The story is thin on the kind of dramatic naval action typifying earlier Hornblower tales but makes up for it by exploring other facets of Hornblower’s diverse skills. His new challenges include his first command of a squadron and delicate problems of international diplomacy. The story appeals to all those interested in the Napoleonic Wars, as it involves fascinating problems of BOTH naval and land warfare. Listeners are likely to prefer Christian Rodska’s robust reading over Richard Green’s more languid narration for the Books On Tape edition of COMMODORE HORNBLOWER (the same book under its American title).

CS Forester The Commodore Christian Rodska ___________________

LORD HORNBLOWER

Read by Christian Rodska. 8 cassettes. 8 1/3 hours. Chivers Audiobooks. 1999.

First published in 1946, this book is the tenth in the eleven-volume Hornblower saga, following COMMODORE HORNBLOWER (also known as THE COMMODORE). Set at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, it places Hornblower in purely naval action only briefly. The story begins with Hornblower subduing a mutinous British crew off the coast of France, where he becomes military governor of a port city that declares against Napoleon. After Napoleon himself capitulates, Hornblower thinks that his wartime career is finally over and revisits the home of the French count who helped him escape in FLYING COLOURS. Napoleon’s sudden return to power traps Hornblower in the middle of France, where he and the count are drawn into a desperate guerrilla struggle against the emperor. Among all the Hornblower books, this one is perhaps the most introspective, revealing all of Hornblower’s inner demons. Christian Rodska’s energetic narration makes this recording superior to the Books On Tape edition.

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HORNBLOWER IN THE WEST INDIES

Read by Christian Rodska. 8 cassettes. 10 1/4 hours. Chivers Audiobooks. 1999.

The great age of fighting sailing ships ended with the fall of Napoleon in 1815. By then, C. S. Forester’s fictional naval hero, Horatio Hornblower, had distinguished himself through two decades of stirring adventures that reached their climax in LORD HORNBLOWER. That novel’s chronological successor is HORNBLOWER IN THE WEST INDIES (first published in 1958), a loosely connected series of short stories set in the early 1820s. Hornblower is finally an admiral; however, his command consists only of a sadly shrunken flotilla in the Caribbean. Although his greatest challenges are now merely pirates, filibusterers, hurricanes, and boredom, he does get into an interesting scrape or two, and Christian Rodska’s typically fine narration makes this book a pleasant diversion. Recommended only to libraries that already have other Hornblower audiobooks.
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Here’s one more, peripherally related, review:

WATERLOO. by Bernard Cornwell

Read by Frederick Davidson. 10 cassettes. 15 hrs. Blackstone Audiobooks. 1996.

Bernard Cornwell was inspired to write historical novels by the example of C. S. Forester, creator of the immortal Horatio Hornblower. However, whereas Forester kept his naval hero away from the complications of the greatest sea battle of his time, at Trafalgar, Cornwell did not shrink from placing his own military hero, Richard Sharpe, in the midst of the biggest and most complex land battle of his time–Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo. The result is one of the most satisfying narratives in Cornwell’s thirteen-volume saga of the British rifleman. At once instructional and entertaining, the book closely follows the known history of Waterloo, while giving Sharpe a pivotal role so plausible that even historians might believe that he was real. With Frederick Davidson’s strong reading, this audiobook offers a can’t-miss addition to all library audiobook collections of adventure stories.

(Cornwell, of course, also put Sharpe in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar. I read his novel about that battle, but I didn’t review it.)

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